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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Civil Aviation

Question agreed to.

4 Feb 2002 : Column 706

1901 Census

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10.28 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Tonight, I am raising an issue that I can genuinely say is of interest to millions of people in the United Kingdom and across the world. About 30 million people sent a powerful message to the Government when, from 2 January this year, they tried—mostly in vain—to connect to the 1901 census website. Overwhelmed, the website closed on 6 January. I hope that the Minister will reassure me and those millions of people that the Government have heard their message and recognise not only that Ministers should ensure that a relaunched site works but that there is a huge opportunity for the Government on the web if they get this right.

For hon. Members who are not sure what I am talking about, let me briefly explain. The 1901 census was published on 2 January 2002. The Public Record Office met its statutory requirements to make that information available, and the public can now access the census using microfiche from the Public Record Office at Kew as well as from many local record offices and public libraries up and down the country.

This year, however, census publication was supposed to be different. As well as using the common microfiche format, the plan was to make the 1901 census available online. That was a fabulous concept. It would have enabled the whole world to search a database of 32 million names from Edwardian England, a transformation for historical research and a dream come true for the fast-growing number of professional and amateur genealogists.

As a newcomer to addictive family research, I should probably declare an interest. For nearly a year, I have dabbled in the search for my ancestors, and it was with some excitement on 2 January that I typed into my computer's search engine. Like millions of others, I was sadly disappointed. On behalf of those millions of frustrated people, I feel it right to raise the matter so that the Government may answer questions about the project.

I shall seek answers on three main points. First, how was the scheme's failure allowed to happen, and what went wrong? Secondly, how is it being put right, and is the Minister satisfied that it will be put right with no repetition of failure? Thirdly, what lessons have been learned? I believe that profound and far-reaching lessons emerge from what happened.

Before I approach the meat of those questions, I want to record my admiration for the Public Record Office. That may sound surprising given what I have just said, but I do not blame the PRO for the failure. If anyone should carry the can, it should be the contractor—QinetiQ—or the Lord Chancellor's Department and the wider private finance initiative programme. I have visited the PRO and seen the rest of its online work, and I know that it is a deeply impressive public service in which committed civil servants are dedicated to high-quality delivery for the public. One need only examine the PRO's annual reports and the extremely high customer satisfaction ratings that it achieves to realise that it is a public service that works. The PRO has done well when

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it has undertaken other information technology projects, such as its amazing online catalogue—PROCAT—or its access to archives initiatives. It has delivered them on time and on budget. The Minister may rest assured that I have no wish to have a go at the PRO. It is a cutting edge example of the public sector at its best.

My focus falls only on the 1901 census web-based project. The concept of putting the 1901 census online cannot be faulted. It was the right decision. The number of people who tried to visit the site shows that the public thought it the right decision. The problem lay in the execution of the project.

In 1998, it was clear to the PRO—presumably, therefore, to Ministers—that it could not pay for a project from its existing budget to put the 1901 census online. A decision was taken to opt for the PFI route. That initial decision raises a series of questions. Did the Lord Chancellor's Department ever consider funding the 1901 census as a one-off public sector project, led by the Public Record Office? What alternatives to the PFI were put to Ministers? Which Ministers took the decision? Was the e-envoy consulted?

One might understand why the PFI was considered suitable in 1998. It was presumably recognised that the website would be popular, and that money was to be made. In 1998, the dotcom bubble had not yet burst. The PRO went to tender in November 1998. I hope that the Minister will confirm that about 30 expressions of interest were received in response to the initial notice in the Official Journal of the European Communities. What I have not been able to discover is how many companies ended up on the shortlist. I understand that many companies withdrew when they realised the sheer enormity of the project—the transcription of 32 million separate 1901 census entries in a relatively short time, and the building of a website database system robust enough to withstand large demand. I am led to believe that the number of companies able to reach the final shortlist was extremely small. Will the Minister give the House that number? If she cannot do so now, will she write to me? The point is germane to the National Audit Office's future consideration of the project.

I have a sneaking suspicion that only one firm was on the shortlist: DERA—the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency—since transformed into the commercial, publicly owned company, QinetiQ. However, when the contract was awarded in October 1999, DERA was still an agency of the Ministry of Defence. My guess is that DERA was the default public sector option, as the private sector eventually declined to bid properly.

DERA still had to bid for a quasi-commercial contract to meet the tender standards and the so-called rigours of the Government's PFI. The Lord Chancellor's Department had to be seen to be participating in the PFI movement. DERA as QinetiQ is now truly commercial and may also soon be privatised. It may be bought by the US company Carlyle, whose chairman is former Prime Minister John Major according to The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian. However, QinetiQ will never do more than the contract demands. It has no wider sense of the public good and no wider duty to the public good, although the census is public information and is thus almost by definition what economists mean by a public good.

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What are the terms of QinetiQ's contract? Well, of course, we cannot be told—they are commercially sensitive. That was the frequent refrain in ministerial replies to my questions and those of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who is in his place this evening. We asked for details of the penalty clauses affecting QinetiQ—commercially sensitive. We asked for the final tender price—commercially sensitive. We asked for the contracts to be placed in the Library—commercially sensitive.

Will the Minister tell us whether we will ever learn the details of that contract? Will they ever become public and, if so, how long after the contract began? Will the 30-year rule—or perhaps even the 100-year rule—apply? Is commercial sensitivity always to be used as an excuse to prevent MPs from searching for the truth on behalf of the public good? Some of us think that commercial sensitivity is sometimes a pseudonym for "politically sensitive".

We know a few things, however. Since 1998, the taxpayer has spent £1.2 million on the 1901 census online project, but the bulk of the funding came from QinetiQ. It used independent finance, although no one would tell me how much. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us.

We are told that QinetiQ is allowed by the contract to "cover their costs" and make "a reasonable return". We do not know how much the return might be. That is politically—sorry, commercially—sensitive. However, page four of the annual report of the Keeper of the Public Records notes that, after the contractor has made a reasonable return:

Will the Minister tell the House whether the digitisation of further census is dependent on what is left over after QinetiQ has made a reasonable return? If so, on current form, it might never happen, because we learn from the Minister's answers that the cost of the additional work needed to relaunch the site will be met by QinetiQ. At one level, that is reassuring, but there are two concerns.

If QinetiQ has to invest more to put the problem right, will it take the company even longer to make a "reasonable return"? Will it thus take even longer before QinetiQ can fund the digitisation of another census, such as that for 1891? One would need to see the detail of the contract to answer that question—but that is of course commercially sensitive.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the question of access to the accounts of publicly owned companies by the Comptroller and Auditor General and by the Public Accounts Committee was explored in some detail by the Sharman review set up by the Government? We have been waiting for more than a year for the Government's reply to that review. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the census project would offer a good test case of the Government's readiness to allow the access by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the PAC that Lord Sharman recommended?

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